Music Reviews
Return to Cookie Mountain

TV On The Radio Return to Cookie Mountain

(4AD / Interscope) Rating - 9/10

John Lennon said a lot of clever things in his 40 years, but the cleverest may have been his explanation of why he loved the rock and roll of his youth. Becoming a focal point of a generation hell bent on figuring out what their cultural leaders were saying in their songs, he pointed out that he was never interested in the words of those old records, what he loved was the Sound. Many words are wasted justifying likes and dislikes based on extraneous elements like words and tunes, when the intrinsic appeal of rock, and hip hop for that matter, still comes down to the same basic question: how does it sound?

So that's why it's no surprise that hip kids in the know wet their pants over a band like TV on the Radio. Right from the word go, on their first ep Young Liars, you could tell these guys were going out of their way to sound different. It was the kind of thing that made you recoil on first listen because it's so new, so fresh, and therefore so odd. But by the second and third listen you got it (hopefully), and eventually you see it as, to paraphrase Joyce, the ineluctable modality of the audible. Yet as "right" as this band sounds it is still difficult to grasp why, since no one I know of even comes close to their sonic template, or is even trying. Now, after two full length albums, how does one convey TV on the Radio to the uninitiated? I've tried with several people, and always gave up, handing them a cd and saying "here, just listen".

Unfortunately for me, TVOTR's new album sticks to their proven sonic formula, forcing me to say something coherent about it. OK, here goes. Rhythm seems to be the driver, with patterns that aren't easily categorized; too syncopated for rock, not funky enough for hip hop. Some beats, like on Let the Devil in, draw from the African music that lies at the foundation of both forms. The guitars are usually distorted and persistent. They fill the role typically taken up by synths, layering and filling in the gaps. On the vocal end, there are a lot of desperate wailing, moaning and falsetto cries. It's no surprise that on one of Cookie's best songs, Province, that greatest of rock wailers, David Bowie, slips almost imperceptibly into the backing vocal track. All this sounds very weird at first blush, but here's the thing: TVOTR never get so caught up in sonic masturbation that they forget to write good songs. Strip off the textures from Wolf like Me and you might be left with the Buzzcocks. But the band frequently goes a step further and makes accessible music in a style all their own, like on Playhouses, with its frenetic rhythm and odd phrasing.

"I was a lover, before this war", the album begins. Why is it that artists are the only people in this godforsaken country besides the soldiers and their families who are actively engaged in the current hostilities? A number of recent releases seem to be grappling with the war and its meaning, and when you begin an album like that you convey a sense of dread that permeates the remainder. Not that TVOTR need much help conveying dread, but it makes the next song, Hours, sound not just creepy, but like an air raid siren going off at dusk in Baghdad. It also makes the album's centerpiece, the epic Wash the Day Away, seem like a desperate plea, or a celebration that lies just out of reach.

But Return to Cookie Mountain is not a polemic. At least I don't think it is. Actually, I have no idea if it is or not, because I can't really understand 99% of the lyrics. But that's cool, because who needs lyrics? It's like Lennon said: forget the words man, dig the Sound.